Probe looks to “hot work” in fatal offshore fire

WASHINGTON — Initial investigations of the lethal explosion at an oil production platform in the Gulf of Mexico are focusing on the possibility that a torch ignited flammable materials on the site.

Such activities that involve burning, welding or other operations capable of starting fires or explosions — called “hot work” in industry parlance — have been blamed for more than 60 deaths in the United States over the past two decades.

Hot work has been a major factor in so many industrial accidents that the federal Chemical Safety Board has warned companies to monitor the amount of flammable gas in the atmosphere constantly before using burning, welding or other sparking tools.

The American Petroleum Institute has issued a standard urging companies to test for flammable gas and take other precautions when conducting the operations.

Don Holmstrom, the Chemical Safety Board’s lead investigator, stressed that it’s not clear whether hot work played a role in the fire on Houston-based Black Elk Energy’s West Delta 32 production platform — although Black Elk’s CEO John Hoffman suggested the possibility in comments after the accident Friday morning.

One worker was killed, several injured — two critically — and one is still missing.

Hoffman said the explosion occurred during maintenance work at the site, when workers were cutting a water line. He said workers may have used a cutting torch instead of a saw, igniting flammable vapors in the line and subsequently triggering an explosion in connected oil tanks.

On Monday, the contractor that employed the workers — Grand Isle Shipyard — rejected that explanation and said the cause of the fire remains under investigation, according to a statement from CEO Mark Pregeant.

Although the Chemical Safety Board has not launched a formal investigation, it has subpoenaed Black Elk and Grand Isle Shipyard, asking for gas testing results, hot work permits, safety assessments and other documents.

The agency also wants to know about the use of combustible gas detectors at the site.

While federal regulations governing offshore work require that companies draft welding plans and get welding permits, those mandates do not appear to extend to other hot work. It also is unclear whether regulations require offshore oil workers to suspend hot work operations if gas detectors reveal enough flammable vapors in the area to ignite.

A major concern, Holmstrom said, is making sure companies share hot work policies, equipment instructions and control information to employees in a language they understand. All of the Grand Isle Shipyard casualties in Friday’s blast were Filipino.

Separately, an analysis by insurer FM Global concluded that the risk of fires can increase by more than 100 percent when outside contractors are involved in hot work without facility supervision. No Black Elk employees were aboard the production platform when the fire started.

The Coast Guard called off its hunt for missing crew members late Saturday, after searchers found one body. Although Black Elk continued the search, the company said Tuesday evening it was suspending the work after what it described as a “thorough and robust” effort spanning more than 1,400 square miles of Gulf waters.

“We will continue to remain focused on the victims and their families, including those injured in the incident,” the company said in a statement. “An official investigation is underway and we will continue to cooperate with all authorities as this process develops.”

Inspectors with the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement have been at the platform securing potential evidence, ensuring the site is safe and overseeing a cleanup of residual oil that could spill into the Gulf of Mexico

Black Elk Energy and Grand Isle Shipyard have drawn regulators’ attention before.

Black Elk was cited for an incident last Aug. 5 that sent two workers plunging into the Gulf of Mexico while a crane was attempting to lower them in a personnel basket onto a boat. They weren’t injured.

In February 2011, a fire on a Black Elk platform was traced to an improperly enclosed rechargeable battery.

Grand Isle Shipyard was fined $7,000 four years ago after two of its workers died inhaling hydrogen sulfide gas while one cleaned a tank on a utility ship.

Federal regulators and lawmakers also are looking to scour the companies’ records. In its subpoena of Black Elk, the Chemical Safety Board asked for details on its past citations for violating offshore regulations.

Founded in 2007 by Hoffman, a former BP and Amoco executive, Black Elk holds interests in 854 wells connected to 155 platforms spanning the Gulf of Mexico. As of 2011, it recorded estimated total proved oil and natural gas reserves of 45.2 million barrels of oil equivalent, mostly concentrated in the shallow waters of the Gulf.

Although the platform where the blaze ignited last week was not producing at the time, the company has estimated it is capable of producing about 600,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day.

The wells linked to the platform involved in Friday’s accident date back decades to the 1950s and 1960s.

Federal records indicate the company took over as operator at the offshore oil lease from Energy XXI GOM in 2011.